The fantasy genre has always garnered intense interest amongst fiction fans. Thousands of books, board games, and video games have ridden the coattails of Tolkien, spamming the overly-used classes of heroes, villains, and creatures to a point that sometimes the characters and settings of various fantasy works of art are barely indistinguishable. Occasionally, a book, movie, or game comes along and kicks aside the mold of the commonplace, by requiring the reader, viewer, or player to adapt to a new style or experience. Shadows of Malice, an independently developed, produced, and distributed game, succeeds in this respect as well as many others. Gone are the stock fare of fantasy character visuals… the game utilizes the players’ imagination as the canvas, and turn-after-turn Shadow of Malice paints the story of good versus evil.
Shadows of Malice is a cooperative board game where one to eight players take on the role (or roles) of Avatars of Aethos, beings of pure light forced to take physical form to contain and defeat the creeping physical presence of the shadow demon Xulthûl. Xulthûl, trapped in the shadow realm long ago by the same Avatars, has begun to unlock the Gate Seals in the shadow realm, spreading darkness across Aethos once more. The future of Aethos is dependent upon the players, who must take up the role of an Avatar, to explore the lands in search of Light Wells capable of banishing Xulthûl once more. During the Avatars’ quest, they will encounter lairs guarded by native creatures, twisted and mutated by the darkness, as well as immensely powerful Guardians watching over Light and Dark Wells. Roaming the lands of Aethos, players will encounter secluded Mystics capable of yielding assistance, cities which may provide aid and resources to the Avatars, and mysterious transport gates that can greatly minimize the perilous trek across the lands of Aethos. As Xulthûl gains power and begins to disburse Shadows across the lands of Aethos to extinguish the wells of light forever, players will need to harvest soulshards and procure powerful weapons, armor, and treasure, to prepare for their impending encounters with the beings of darkness, and potentially Xulthûl himself.
The Shadows of Malice box is packed full of various components, including almost 200 cards, over 100 crystalline soulshards, twenty-four black and white dice of varying sizes, over 100 various cardboard tokens representing light and dark wells, Avatar tokens, life tokens, location tokens, and much more. The base of the box has a serviceable insert dividing the container into four sections, and an ample quantity of baggies is included for separation of the varying types of components. Also included are five heavyweight hex-shaped terrain maps, which are coded on the borders for pairing and proper alignment.
The first thing I noticed about Shadows of Malice is the artwork, which is minimalistic at best. On the surface, one might find this as a disappointment. However, as I marched through my first play of the game, I found the visuals were not a distraction. The theme of the game is carried well by the light art, and events throughout the game contour a storyboard experience, especially for those who hearken back to the glory days of fantasy RPGs.
The full-color rulebook is passable, but somewhat disjointed. The sections on game setup and example game walk-through are practically flawless. However, I had mild confusion over the differing types of dice throws for combat, luck, movement, and power. As well, finding specific topics or key words can be mildly frustrating, since there is no included table of contents or appendix. Even with the mild dings against the rule book, most rules will become second nature rather quickly, and the need for future rule book research will practically be mitigated in-full after the first play-through.
Setup of the game is quite simple. Taking center stage is the map tile for the Shadow Realm, which has six Shadow Gates, initially locked. Hex maps of Aethos are spread around the Shadow Realm, in a quantity to be determined by the players. As there are three strongholds housing Wells on each Hex Board, naturally the more hex tiles to be used in the gaming session, the lengthier the play session will be. In my experience, game length is approximately one hour per map tile in play. Two Dark Wells and one Light Well is randomized and placed on each stronghold per map tile, face down. City tokens are randomized as well, one per map tile, and are placed face-down on the designated map grid. Mystic counters get the same treatment, one per map tile. Finally, stocked lair tokens are placed on the map tile in their prescribed location, to show that a creature inhabits the grid location.
Each player chooses an avatar token from the supply, which will mark their position in the land of Aethos. Each avatar gets five double-sided life tokens. One side is health, the opposite side evidences wounds or drains, depending on the orientation of the token. Next, each Avatar draws a Mastery card, which is its inherent “special ability”. This is one of the bits of flair from the game that I really enjoy. I do not have to choose a Fighter, Wizard, Ranger, or any other pre-defined class. All avatars can use all Masteries, weapons, armor, scrolls, and wearable buff items. There are 18 different Mastery cards in the base game, such as “Blood Singer”, which can inflict harm to creatures by sacrificing health, “Time Dancer”, which will allow an Avatar to re-roll a dice roll or card draw at the expense of a soulshard (explained below), and “Life Shaper”, who can physically redistribute health among the group mid-fight. Each Mastery has a “primary ability” which is always available to the Avatar, and a much stronger secondary ability which can be used once per Avatar per turn, at the expense of soulshards. Each Avatar begins the game with three colorless soulshards and three soulshards in the color of their specific mastery (there are six different colors, including the colorless shard). Beginning treasures are optional, and distributed at this time, remaining decks (creature ability deck, treasure deck, Fate deck, and potion deck) are shuffled and placed nearby, and Avatars are placed on a Gate Hex of their choosing.
Gameplay in Shadows of Malice is quite streamlined. A gameplay round is divided into two parts: First, the player’s turn, followed by the Shadows’ turn. Each Avatar (order does not matter) or banded group of Avatars first roll for movement, then may take one action. Some of the potential actions consist of the following:
Player Turn and Turn Influences – Movement and Fate
Movement is determined by rolling 2 different six-sided die, designating one as the “Movement die” and the other as the “Fate die”. The Avatar’s movement allowance is always 2 plus the result of the movement die (plus, any modifiers for treasure or Fates dictating an adjustment to movement). When rolling for movement, if the player rolls doubles, the Avatar is subject to an immediate Fate, drawn from the Fate deck. Avatars can only have one Fate at a time, and if another is required to be drawn, the original equipped Fate is discarded. These “Fates” are quite interesting, and can be very beneficial or very harmful. They can also be persistent, one-use, or instantly effective. Samples of beneficial Fates are “Precision”, which grants the Avatar additional chances to hit and cause damage in combat, “Kiss of the Divine”, which instantly heals the Avatar, and “Visions”, which allow the Avatar to instantly learn the nature of an unrevealed Well. Samples of harmful Fates are “Curse of Decay”, which drain one health until the Fate is removed, “Curse of Fumbling”, penalizing the Avatar in combat, and “Curse of Missteps”, granting a movement penalty.
Once movement points are established and a Fate card is drawn, if applicable, the Avatar can move across map grids at the expense of the terrain encountered. Each type of terrain (plains, hills, mountains, swamps, roads, paths, desert, bridges) have a specific movement cost.
Player Turn – Creature Encounters
Unique to any board game I have played, and hearkening back to my old role-playing days, is a Creature Generator tile which is used to determine the nature of any beast encountered. Dice are rolled and compared against three lookups. First, the type of creature is determined, and is influenced by the type of terrain the encounter transpires in. Creature type could be Avian (bird/flying), Sectoid, (insect), Reptilid (reptile), Mammal (dog, humanoid, etc.), Arboran (plant/tree), Protean (shape-shifting, like gelatinous, slime, or ooze), Terrovan (earthen/mineral/rock/metal), or Ichthyic (fish and other aquatic creatures). This is not merely superficial, as certain abilities, scrolls, and treasure have impacts versus certain creature types. Second, the creature “power” or strength is determined. This influences the overall health the creature has, bonus damage it deals, and combat dice the creature rolls. Lastly, the final die determines the quantity of special abilities that the creature has. Therefore, in the forest, an Avatar could encounter a large lizard, capable of area attack of various energy types. Or in the desert, an encounter could be had with a giant two-headed scorpion with four pincers and the ability of “thunderous”, generating a terrifying shriek or noise which demoralizes the Avatar and grants a penalty to hit in combat. The variations are endless, and rely on the imagination of the players.
Player’s Turn – Banding
Banding is an aspect of gameplay where two or more Avatars can act as a group to yield specific advantages and restrictions. Without going into immense detail, banded Avatars get bonuses to combat by using the highest die rolled in the group, but also take a movement penalty by being forced to use the lowest movement die rolled amongst the banded individuals. Avatars can band and disband at will, with minimal restriction.
Avatars start with a beginning inventory of soulshards, which can be used to modify a die roll (increasing chance of success), to attack aggression when banded with other Avatars during combat, and to activate a Mastery. Soulshards can be harvested from creature encounters and traded in certain cities.
Treasures, Mystics, and Cities
Treasures are various types of loot, which will greatly aid the Avatars in their search of Light Wells. Loot may be various weapons, scrolls, armor, or other wearables granting bonuses to Avatars such as increased health, chance to hit, and defense bonuses.
Travel to cities or mystics yield various benefits, such as alchemy services, removal of curses, healing services, and merchants. In some instances, treasures deposited by Avatars long ago are distributed to the group, to be used to save Aethos once more.
During the Shadow’s turn, any Shadow in the Shadow Realm wanders until an unsealed Gate is found, at which time the Shadow relocates to the earthly plane of Aethos. Immediately upon appearing in Aethos, the Shadow begins heading for the nearest Gate in an attempt to find and extinguish Light Wells. Once a Shadow leaves the Shadow Realm, another one generates and begins looking for an open gate to Aethos.
Combat and related damage are determined by die throws by each Avatar or band of Avatars, and compared against the Creature die rolls. Chances to hit are modified by held treasures or expended soulshards for the Avatars, and by Creature abilities for the enemy. At its most rudimentary, the higher die wins the combat round, and health points are reduced accordingly, modified for any ability or treasure contributing to damage. Contained within the combat rules are also pre-combat actions such as activating Masteries or using potions, defending and withdrawing rules, and how to handle reincarnation should an Avatar die. Usually, upon an Avatar victory in combat, treasures and soulshards are awarded and split among the group. Upon dying due to combat wounds, an avatar is reincarnated at a random Gate hex, and will have to choose a new Mastery. Also, procured items before death may either be left behind or destroyed, and there may be a health penalty assessed until healing can take place.
The ultimate goal of the Avatars is to find and reveal the Light Wells of Aethos. Once a Light Well is revealed, each Avatar draws a “radiance token”, which is a unique benefit to an Avatar’s characteristics, such as health, combat, or movement. There are a total of ten unique radiance tokens. If the Avatars can find the respective Light Well on each map tile, the Avatars win the game, driving the Shadow demons back into oblivion.
If a Shadow finds a Dark Well, future iterations of creatures become stronger. Once any Shadow defeats a stronghold guardian guarding a Light Well, the Shadow will take the form of Xulthûl and extinguish the Light Well. When this takes place, the only way the Avatars can win is to defeat Xulthûl, which is extremely difficult. Xulthûl will race across Aethos, destroying cities in its wake, in search of the remaining Light Wells. Once all Light Wells are extinguished, the Avatars are defeated, and Aethos is lost to the Shadow beings forever.
Shadows of Malice is a unique fantasy game that genuinely exercises the player’s imagination. Although somewhat dice-heavy, the fate of the Avatars are never left solely to die throws. Players can sway combat resolution through extinguishing soulshards, through banding and disbanding, and through trading of items. Every game turns out quite differently, due to the huge assortment of creature abilities, treasures, potions, Fates, and Masteries…as well as the varying actions of Shadows. Sometimes, Shadows in the Shadow Realm wander, gaining strength for quite a few turns, but when they appear in Aethos, are unbelievably strong. Sometimes, Shadows pour out incessantly, creating a rapidly deteriorating situation by not allowing Avatars to explore and become more powerful. It is always up to the player to weigh the cost versus benefit of further exploration at the cost of a Shadow uncovering a Light Well. And in the end, the game comes down to a race against time…against the spreading darkness and deteriorating landscape and creatures, and the minor choices that are made. Some of these choices can be the saving action of the group…the timeliness activation of a Mastery, pulling the Avatars from the jaws of defeat. Or, it could be the choice to use a powerful potion before combat, to heal a fallen comrade.
In the end, for a fantasy board game with an GM-less RPG-like experience which comes together differently with every play-through, Shadows of Malice delivers in spades. An epic story awaits – do you have what it takes to save Aethos?